Since the 2004 elections, when the ANC peaked at 70% of the national vote share, the party has experienced an ongoing decline, from 66% in 2009, 62% in 2014, to a likely 57% in 2019.

Its actual vote count shrunk in the 2014 election, and its support from the larger eligible voter population has dived considerably over twenty years. Altogether, its support base shows clear signs of shrinkage.  However this is all largely irrelevant if a party is able to muster majorities at each election. The question now is whether the ANC will continue to do this when the overall trend is one of decline. There are several reasons to suggest it will not.

The ANC’s partisan support base is declining at each election, partly a result of weakening ties to the party and partly from generational replacement as young voters enter the electorate without long standing ties to the party. Partisans are always more likely to turnout to vote and to vote for their preferred party. Assuming partisan decline for the ANC continues, the party will not be able to rely on this large and mobilized support base in future elections.

Instead, the party will increasingly have to appeal to voters based on its performance in office. This is much harder to realize and will rely on  internal party correctives to ensure government starts to function better. The negative citizen performance evaluations of the ANC in the years before the 2019 election should have sounded an electoral death knell for the party. If South African voters had simply based their 2019 vote decision on the past performance of the government, the ANC would probably have failed to secure a national majority.

Over several recent elections voters have also shown their willingness to punish poor performance by withdrawing their support for parties – incumbents and opposition parties alike. Increasingly, voters are also prepared to vote for opposition parties – after all, in 2019 it appears that 43% of those who did vote opted for an opposition party. These are increasingly realistic alternatives to the ANC and as opposition politics matures it should become increasingly competitive.

Moreover, the composition of the electorate changes at every election. As each year passes huge numbers of young people become eligible voters bringing with them diminished memories of the past, and the emotional and historical attachments that tend to drive party identification among older voters. Young voters are unpredictable in their behavior and they are bound to produce more electoral uncertainty.

Perhaps, a 57% majority is probably an appropriate outcome for now: it reflects a clear reprimand by the electorate – a warning to the ANC that poor performance and unaccountability will not be tolerated – but it does offer President Ramaphosa sufficient legitimacy and credibility to push his reformist agenda. – Collette Schulz Herzenberg